We’re only two days into the series and already it’s utterly riveting. Enough swings of fortune and shifts of momentum have been shoehorned into six sessions to silence even the most ardent detractor of Test cricket. Not that you’ll find too many of those around in an Ashes year. It’s a paltry sample of course but one particular misconception has been laid firmly to rest. It’s the one, never shared in these quarters, that purported Australia would be a pushover. Oh no, there is a glass jaw about England and the combative Antipodeans fancy themselves to land the knockout punch. Even more so now that the pugilistic and gloriously straightforward Darren Lehmann has assumed the reins. If the home side thought the turmoil of the opposition build-up would place them on the front foot, they’ll be more than just a little concerned to be pinned back on the crease fending off the short stuff.
Lehmann’s panic appointment, after the always combustible Mickey Arthur era finally self-immolated in a bushfire of rancour, was supposed to be the latest round of ammunition with which to scatter a beleaguered platoon. What a shambolic preparation for the assignment that matters most. Following on from the amusement of the mauling in India, ‘homeworkgate’ and David Warner’s Crocodile Dundee parody in a Birmingham bar, it seemed as if the plot had finally been lost with such a cataclysmic about-turn just weeks before the first ball was bowled. Alastair Cook’s men had been strong favourites to tighten their grasp on the treasured urn before this; in its wake there were triumphal predictions of a rout. That though is to pay scant regard to the passion forged beneath the Southern Cross. The jolly swagman, a shaven headed, pleasantly overweight former opening bat with a penchant for a cigarette and a bit of rabble rousing, is a caricature enthusiastically pedalled by a partisan media. Despite its patent simplicity however, it is an image which does the cause no harm.
His nickname ‘Boof’, a quintessentially Aussie combination of abuse and affection rolled into one, is curiously instructive. Lehmann is a proper bloke, down to earth and fiercely loyal, not afraid to tell it like it is but quick to place an arm around the shoulder when necessary. Small wonder he fitted in perfectly at Yorkshire, where his fondly remembered prolific stint as an overseas player made the suspicious locals forget they’d compromised their principles by hiring an outsider at all. While the patrician Arthur appeared to overlook the fact he was dealing with adults, Lehmann has already taken to referring to his ‘boys’ without irony. A spring in the step has returned since he took that initial session, a sense of tension released and purpose rediscovered. Over-complication has been tossed aside, lectures have given way to debates and senior figures given responsibility. At Worcester in a recent warm-up game, he donned a baggy green and carried out the drinks. He first became a coach by accident. It just transpired he enjoyed it.
Appearances can be deceptive. It is not as though he is the complete antithesis to what had gone before. His approach might be superficially old school but he is no dinosaur. Open to modern methods and ideas, undoubtedly assisted by his stewardship of the Deccan Chargers in the IPL, the big difference is in his placing of confidence and a positive atmosphere ahead of slavish adherence to a doctrine. And if you wanted any greater example of that you need look no further than the incredible batting heroics of the teenaged debutant Ashton Agar at Trent Bridge. Not just in his joie de vivre assault which had the appropriate pages of Wisden prepared for return to the printers, but his equally assured interview afterwards in which any notions of fear or awe were conspicuous by their absence. That would have been unlikely several weeks ago, when factionalism and disgruntlement was written all over an insipid Champions Trophy defence. In any case, he wasn’t even in the squad at that point.
The curveball of his selection is a piece of pure Lehmann theatre. What is significant is that it wasn’t a last minute hunch. He was informed fully two days in advance, enough for his family to get themselves a plane halfway across the world to be in attendance. Note too that Shane Watson, the walking epitome of the previous regime’s divisions, was returned to the top of the order to be partnered by the English conditions hardened Chris Rogers. No prevarication, just bold decision making rooted in common sense and a deep knowledge of what he had available. In his playing days, Lehmann’s opportunities were limited by the wealth of talent around him but he fought his way into contention by wringing the last drops from his ability, leaving nothing in the locker room as they say Down Under, a neat metaphor for what faces him now. His style was a crowd-pleasing mixture of aggression and finesse; he has already demonstrated both traits in his new role, without losing any of that populist appeal.
England know all too well that internal convulsion can, perversely, be a galvanising force. The fallout from the Pietersen-Moores affair dominated the lead up to the last home Ashes series. The Strauss-Flower combination which replaced it was more a product of happenstance than meticulous planning, but it sort of clicked. The second Pietersen meltdown which scarred the end of last summer might have threatened catastrophe in the sub-continent. Instead, fully re-integrated or not, an awkward situation became merely the context of a landmark success a quarter of a century in the making. Though the schism which saw Lehmann parachuted into post had all the elements of a climbdown, a loss of nerve by a board which had until that point been fully supportive of its report-driven brave new world, it was a pragmatic and belligerent response in the best traditions of our favourite cousins.
I for one was rather less confident to see this charismatic figure, imagined tinny in hand, sharing a joke on the balcony or deflecting banter as he perambulated the ground during play. As New Zealand proved, England have plenty insecurities of their own and Lehmann, simply by association with the mighty team which was for so long their nemesis, exposes them a little further. But there are no Warnes, McGraths or Pontings lurking anymore, and on paper the hosts have the better individuals and should win. Both sides probably have greater reliability with the ball and, as we have already glimpsed, low scoring games can be the most exciting of all. It will be memorable whatever happens. With Lehmann in charge, the real Aussies are back, full of bluster and never short of a word of two. We should be delighted. It’ll make beating them all the sweeter.